Confused by Skating Scores? Join the Club

Figure skating requires daring, dazzle and, now, a detailed knowledge of math.

"If you are on the inside of skating, you sort of understand it," said 1988 gold medalist Brian Boitano. "But not quite."

Boitano is one of many people watching the Olympics who are confused by the new judging system. Gone is the old six-point scale that showed how a judge evaluated a performance. In its place is a new formula that places numerical values on every jump, spin and spiral.

"The American public, who has not yet been able to decipher what a triple salchow is after years and years of seeing it, how are they going to understand this new judging system?" Boitano said.

It is more than just complicated. In the effort to remove subjectivity and bias, skating might have introduced a new problem -- random luck.

Not All Scores Are Equal

This is the issue: Twelve judges score the competition, but a computer randomly drops three of their marks. So only nine judges' scores count toward the final results.

John Emerson, assistant professor of statistics at Yale University, said the judging formula can alter the competition's outcome. "If it's a very close competition," Emerson said, "you could possibly have different medal standings depending on which of the nine were selected."

Emerson analyzed all the possible groupings of nine judges from this week's pairs competition. He found that in more than 10 percent of the combinations, the teams on the podium would have been different.

"Pang and Tong, the Chinese team who finished in fourth place, could have been awarded the bronze medal if a different panel of nine had been selected," he said.

The International Skating Union says the random choice of judges "may affect to a small degree" the overall score, but officials stand by the system.

Last night's men's competition was a blowout, but skating might not be so lucky in the future.

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